Marisa Lagos, Chronicle Sacramento Bureau
San Francisco Chronicle
Sunday, August 29, 2010

(08-29) 04:00 PDT Sacramento – —

The campaign for state attorney general is heating up as the candidates – prosecutors from opposite ends of the state and political aisle – launch scathing attacks on one another over their character and integrity.

Last week, Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley accused San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris of hypocrisy for accepting more than $34,000 in travel from a leadership fellowship while at the same time criticizing him for accepting more than $11,000 in gifts from individuals. She has also slammed him for spending more than $10,000 in “officeholder funds” – money raised from private donors – to travel abroad and to Sonoma County for an exclusive, men-only retreat at Bohemian Grove.

State law allows elected officials to accept up to $420 in gifts from any individual within a year, and both candidates have reported the gifts as required by the state. But some critics say the practice of accepting any gifts raises questions about whether a prosecutor can maintain his or her integrity.

Harris, a Democrat, launched a radio ad Aug. 18 mocking her Republican opponent’s acceptance of “Lakers tickets, concerts at the Hollywood Bowl, liquor, cigars, cologne and Italian designer suits” and questioning his integrity. Her ad followed an Aug. 9 report in The Chronicle detailing the thousands of dollars in gifts and travel the Republican candidate has accepted over the years.
Back and forth

In response to the criticism from Harris, a Cooley spokesman pointed to the more than $34,000 in travel Harris has accepted in connection with her leadership fellowship at the Aspen Institute, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization. He also noted the approximately $1,400 worth of gifts Harris has accepted over her nearly six years in office, including $75 worth of San Francisco Giants tickets, a $300 vase from Mills College and a $100 ceremonial sword from the Thailand attorney general.

“What struck me the most is the cynicism and hypocrisy,” said Kevin Spillane, Cooley’s political consultant. “She is attacking Cooley for something she has not only done, but done much more extensively. She is trying to portray an image of (Cooley’s) lavish lifestyle, which is false, when she is the one jet-setting around the world.”

Harris spokesman Brian Brokaw retorted that the Cooley campaign is going to “desperate lengths to dig his way out of a brewing scandal.” He noted that Cooley accepted more than $1,600 in Lakers tickets alone and said the career prosecutor “is quaking in his boots, because he has based his entire candidacy on his unquestionable virtue.”

Cooley was on the offensive again this week after an Aug. 26 L.A. Weekly story disclosed questionable campaign contributions accepted by the GOP nominee. The report details money given to Cooley six years ago by a prolific GOP donor who, in 2007, pleaded guilty to making illegal campaign contributions in federal races.

Gladwin Gill, a Los Angeles business owner, funneled money through relatives and employees to skirt federal campaign contribution limits; some of the same people named in that case, as well as Gill, contributed thousands of dollars to one of Cooley’s re-election campaigns. The story notes that Cooley’s office has prosecuted Democratic donors for similar offenses but that Gill’s contributions were never investigated.

Spillane said the issue was not investigated because the district attorney’s office never received a formal complaint. He said the contributions will not be investigated now – nor will they be returned, because the statute of limitations has expired and the money has long been spent.

Brokaw called that response “a jaw-dropping display of chutzpah from a career prosecutor who has spent decades in law enforcement” and said Cooley is a hypocrite himself.

“Cooley’s invoking (the) statute of limitations as a reason to not investigate this matter is both improper and unethical,” he added. “It appears as though Mr. Cooley’s admission of a date – certain at which the statute of limitations would have expired – 2008 – implies that Cooley does in fact believe a crime may have been committed.”
Attacks called questionable

The seriousness of any of the accusations flying back and forth is questionable, said Judy Nadler, a government ethics expert at Santa Clara University and former Santa Clara mayor – particularly the attacks on the Rodel Fellowship awarded to Harris.

“I believe (the fellowship) comes under the category of an educational program that benefits the public,” she said.

The prestigious fellowship is awarded to both Republicans and Democrats, aims to educate emerging political leaders and is funded by a foundation, according to Aspen Institute officials.

Spillane, however, said many corporate donors support the Aspen Institute and noted that Harris traveled to China, India and the Middle East on the fellowship’s dime.

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